Students prepare for winter break trip to Sierra Leone through KidsGive

Elizabeth Vaughan

This winter break, members of Lawrence University’s student body and faculty will be traveling to Sierra Leone to provide aid to local schools through KidsGive. KidsGive is a non-profit organization that started at Lawrence in 2006 by Claudena Skran, professor of government and Edwin & Ruth West Professor of Economics and Social Science. The program focuses on education in the U.S. and Sierra Leone.

Throughout the year, KidsGive members help kids fundraise and make a difference for kids in Sierra Leone through teaching high school students throughout Wisconsin, the U.S. and New Zealand.

Students have been conducting workshops and implementing fundraising programs, such as selling bracelets from Sierra Leone. “The programs teach young students leadership skills and informed giving,” said student assistant Maria Mateo. KidsGive’s main partner, Students Working Against Hunger and Poverty, helps in the education process, as well as other organizations such as Lambda Sigma and Hip Hop Congress.

Skran started the program after having been the first Fulbright scholar to conduct field research following Sierra Leone’s civil war. The program started with 13 scholarships and is still highly focused, but has now greatly expanded. The first KidsGive trip in 2009 sponsored 50 kids in an urban school called Conforti.

Although located in a poor area on the Western Peninsula of Sierra Leone, Conforti students scored highest on national exams for primary students The aid KidsGive receives goes toward scholarships. This year, KidsGive will provide aid to two other schools: The Forum of African Women Educationalists school and St. Mary’s Secondary School.

The students and faculty who travel to Sierra Leone must take a Sierra Leone Field Experience course with Skran in order to be eligible to travel to Sierra Leone. The class covers the economic situation of Sierra Leone before and after the civil war that took place there from 1991-2002. It also discusses issues such as the abnormally high death rate of children and problems that arise from the diamond industry. However, the class also discusses the many positive aspects and the hopeful future of Sierra Leone.

Out of the 16 students and two faculty members who are going, some are conducting research in fields such as mining, agriculture, land use, nutrition and music. Although not directly affiliated with KidsGive, many of the projects will be conducted where the KidsGive schools are and will indirectly benefit the schools.

For instance, a student last year analyzed the nutritional situation of scholarship recipients via interviews and body mass analysis. The student based nutritional projects off of findings. Said Will Meadows, student assistant at KidsGive, “One student completed a project on lead analysis, and then was able to remove objects with high metal content such as barrels from playgrounds.” These students will also volunteer at the annual Scholarship Day and Sports Day festivals that are held at the Conforti school.

The students will learn a lot about the culture and geography of Sierra Leone. Although English is the official language, Krio (Créole), Mende and Kono are regional languages that are also regularly spoken. The group will be taking a course in Krio.

The trip takes an environmental focus — the students start in Freetown, the capital, and then travel to Tiwai Island to help with conservation projects for the island’s forests. The groups will then split up; some people will go to rural towns in the southern district, and some will go north to study diamond mining. Students will be camping and staying in guest houses.

The project has grown immensely since 2006 and has benefited LU students and schools all around the U.S. and Sierra Leone. Students studying anything from economics and government to environmental science have brought their expertise to Sierra Leone and made a visible difference in Sierra Leone’s top performing schools.

Said Skran, “I’ve been so impressed by the Lawrence students and the real love [and] ownership of the project. The project has developed according to their interests instead of just mine.”